The pilot, later identified as Capt. Michael Johnston, 57, died from an unspecified illness. The Airbus A320 jet left Phoenix just before midnight Monday and diverted to Syracuse Hancock International Airport shortly after 7 a.m.
"They just said, 'Hi. We have to make an emergency landing. The pilot's not feeling well,'" said Michael Litterio. "When we landed, we thought that he just wasn't feeling well. We had no idea he had passed. It was extremely shocking."
WFXT obtained air-traffic control communications as the co-pilot of Flight 550 prepared for an early landing.
"Syracuse, American 550 is out at 15,000 for 5,000," the crew said. "Medical emergency, the captain is incapacitated. Request handling for runway, one-zero landing."
"They said that the pilot was really sick, and that was it," Julia House said." And we saw ambulances pulling up."
Passengers waited inside the airport as emergency crews removed the body and prepared the plane for another crew to fly the aircraft to Boston. The somber news was confirmed when they re-boarded the plane. The flight finally arrived at Logan Airport shortly after noon.
"I really think you've got to hand it to the co-pilot," said passenger Frank Cacciola, "because, I'll tell you, I don't know what I would've done in that situation."
Cacciola and a few other passengers took pictures of a rainbow that formed while the pilot's body was removed from the plane in Syracuse. They said the unexpected sight provided comfort.
"This rainbow came out, and the skies opened up as if his spirit was leaving the plane and going to heaven," Cacciola said.